This past December, Red Wedge announced it was going to ask some new and not-so-new questions about the challenges facing art, human creativity, and the struggle for a better world. Foremost among these are questions related to the breaking down of stale, constructed barriers between “the art world” and revolutionary ideas. How can art be reinvigorated beyond the accepted conventions of the gallery and reestablish its connection with a genuine, human utopian urge? Can the “avant-garde,” with all its experimentalism, shed the pompous connotation of “weird for the sake of weird” and reconnect with the concerns of total, thoroughgoing liberation? This essay from editor Adam Turl is the first in a series of articles and blog posts exploring and debating just this notion: that of an urgent, connected, radically engaged “popular avant-garde.” – The Editors
* * *
Just their fingers' prints / staining the cold glass, is sufficient / for commerce, and a proper ruling on / humanity... – Amiri Baraka, "The Politics of Rich Painters," 1964
We have reached the Hegelian endgame; the fusion of art and philosophy. Not quite, as Arthur Danto notes, a negation of art by philosophy but the fusion of both.  The art object has become, it is claimed, a philosophical argument in itself. But it is a pyrrhic victory – a Twilight Zone ending for art history, modernism and the avant-garde.
The zeros of painting, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, were long ago achieved. Echoing Joseph Beuys’ “famous axiom” that “everyone is an artist,” anything can be made into art.  But the world beyond the philosophical-art object remains stratified, full of prosaic wars, bigotries, and privations.
Anything can be made into art. But there is a small army of theorists dedicated to parsing out what is and isn’t art. Anyone can be an artist – if they aren’t too attached to the idea of eating dinner. Art and philosophy have fused but in the absence of the social revolution that was meant to accompany that fusion. The result is a philosophical-art object that is profoundly weak. If the present model of serious contemporary art is a weak avant-garde, the solution is a popular avant-garde: a rapprochement between artistic experimentation (as art) and mass emancipatory politics.
Boris Groys’ Weak Avant-Garde
In his 2010 essay, “The Weak Universalism,” Boris Groys points to (some of) the above contradictions, albeit divorced from any substantial materialist explanation. Groys observes an “academicized late avant-garde” defined primarily by its conditioning in art schools. Whereas the pre-avant-garde academy was focused on technical skill, according to Groys, the weak avant-garde is defined by its knowledge and conditioning in the avant-garde cannon. Here the “deprofessionalization” of art, a product of anti-elitist and other modernist gestures, becomes highly professional.
This weak avant-garde tends to produce weak visual signs. The basis of this weakness, for Groys, is in the constant change and churning novelty of modern life. “[K]knowledge of the end of the world as we know it,” Groys writes, “of contracting time, of the scarcity of time in which we live” produces a kind of “messianic knowledge.” The avant-garde becomes, according to Groys, “a secularized apostle… who brings to the world the message that time is contracting, that there is a scarcity of time.” Because we live in a “chronically messianic” or “apocalyptic” epoch in which “change is the status quo,” or “permanent change… our only constant,” the visual artist seeks intentionally weak visual signs. These weak signs are the artists’ attempt to produce “transtemporal” works of art; “art for all time.” 
Here Groys turns reification on its head. Instead of the concrete being made abstract due to the material interests (real or perceived) of bourgeois thinkers and artists, the concrete is made abstract to escape the temporal (but strong) images of a constantly changing popular culture. For Groys, Malevich’s Black Square – the zero of painting – is the ultimate weak sign. These “transcendent images” in the “Kantian sense” are not just products of artists’ weak messianism but also invocations of a “weak universalism.” The gods and utopias that animated the past have, in themselves, become “weak.” These weak images are to be contrasted, in Groys view, with the “strong images with a high level of visibility” like “images of classical art or mass culture.” 
While Groys offers many insights, most importantly the idea of the weak avant-garde itself, there are a number of problems with his analysis. He is wrong about reification. The two biggest related problems lie in glossing over the material basis of the weak-avant-garde and in his selective genealogy of the modern avant-garde itself. To make the case, for example, that the modernist avant-gardes always tended toward weak images one must restrict history to the visual arts (leaving aside cinema, literature, theater, poetry, music, etc.), and even then one must cut out Dada, surrealism, and the “stronger” images of expressionism, constructivism, futurism, etc. The avant-gardes of theater (see Brecht) and film (see Eisenstein or Pasolini) continued to embrace the strong image. This omission makes sense in Groys’ schema – counterposing the weak avant-garde to anything remotely popular – but it leaves out a significant part of modern art history (often those elements most associated with emancipatory impulses – anarchism, socialism, national liberation and feminism).
The Political Economy of the Weak Avant-Garde
There is a material basis for the weak avant-garde, both in the political economy of the art world itself, and the broader cultural dynamics of contemporary capitalism. The art world rests on three institutional pillars: the academic, the non-profit/museum art space, and the art market. A fourth “invisible” pillar supports the art world as a world: the army of art volunteers (Jerry Saltz) and unknown artists that comprise the dark matter of contemporary art. “Like its astronomical cousin,” Gregory Sholette argues, “creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society.” These are the working-class artists that achieve no notoriety, the volunteers at community art centers, etc.  The art market, of course, is what reinforces the middle-class character of visual art production and the commodity status of the art object. The art market economy is largely one of individual producers who make art on speculation to be sold in a boutique market.  The vast majority of artists who participate in this market are unable to “make ends meet” by art sales alone. The foundational economy of the art world cannot support the majority of artists. Regardless, the demands of this market, oriented primarily to middle and upper class collectors, tend to shape the content and form of artworks sold. Here is a possible explanation for “weak” images that Groys has missed – a prosaic truth that much of the bourgeoisie does not want challenging images hanging over their couches.
The logic of the market, of course, extends into the academic and non-profit art institution. In a survey of a thousand artists about compensation at non-profit art spaces, “58.4 percent were completely unpaid, without even expense reimbursement. Even some of the largest institutions got low marks: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, has a total annual operating budget of more than $250 million but paid surveyed artists for only 14.3 percent of exhibitions.”  In 1973 Holis Frampton wrote a letter to MoMA citing the case of post-war surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren, who, despite her “art world” notability, had starved to death in New York City.  As Red Wedge has observed elsewhere:
After more than three-decades of accelerating government cutbacks, non-profits now increasingly operate by the logic of capital accumulation in their own operations. Universities increase tuition and sacrifice education and research budgets for shiny new buildings. Museums sacrifice exhibition budgets for unnecessary expansions. Community groups increase the number of ‘gatekeepers’ to urgently needed (but dwindling) resources… As Lillian Lewis and Sara Wilson McKay observe in their article, ‘Seeking Policies for Cultural Democracy: Examining the Part, Present and Future of U.S. Nonprofit Arts,’ non-profits have been forced to increasingly rely on ‘earned income’ to maintain their operations. In 2004, non-profit art organizations depended on renting their space, charging admission fees, etc. for half of their operations budgets. Just as the corporate form disciplines workers in the private sector it disciplines non-profit workers — as workers at the Art Institute of Chicago discovered when they tried to organize a union in 2000. The Art Institute, with a half-billion dollar endowment at the time, hired expensive anti-union lawyers and belittled organizing workers. 
The Ideology of the Weak Avant-Garde
There is, however, an ideological factor that echoes beyond the market itself. As Danica Radoshevich argues in her essay, “Zombie Gallery? The German Ideology and the White Cube,” “the bourgeois intellectual appeals to the abstract because he conceives of himself as in touch with some generalized unreservedly ‘true’ human condition.” The canonical status of the museum/non-profit space, and the academic cannon itself, is the echo of this bourgeois conceit. It is not, in this case, the temporal chaos of contemporary life driving reification. “When this [art] is installed in an empty, white walled gallery space,” Radoshevich writes, “its supposed ‘autonomy’ and ‘universal validity’ is visually and materially heightened, while its relationships to social or material contexts is erased.” 
Post-modernism claimed to undermine this sort of canonical thinking. In truth, however, post-modernism reinforced it. Post-modernism and post-structuralism, heralding the end of totalizing metanarratives or explanations (such as Marxism), promised liberation from the ideological constraints of the past. While in some cases spurring liberation from essentialist notions of identity, post-modernism emphasized an endlessly “discursive” notion of power, privileging not social movements of the exploited and oppressed (in the vein of classical Marxism) but instead valorizing the theorist and professor. It has became increasingly clear that critics like Fredric Jameson, David Harvey and Ben Davis were right: post-modernism was the cultural logic and ideology of neoliberal capital.  It celebrated social and cultural fragmentation at the very moment large corporations began using social and economic fragmentation to reorganize global production and capital accumulation to their advantage. An overgrowth of “anti-ideological” theory concealed (for the art world) a thousand real world disasters.
These unfolding disasters, recalling Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” are the material basis for the “state of permanent change” that Groys describes empirically. Capitalism is a system based on the constant destruction and creation of capital (both fixed capital – machines, and variable capital – human beings). At its most benign this appears as fashion and novelty. At its most brutal this dynamic appears as shuttered factory gates in Indiana and ten year old sweatshop workers in Indonesia; and of course as bombs falling on Syrian refugees. The temporal/transtemporal dialectic, created by the unfolding of combined and even economic development (UCD), is experienced differently depending on one’s social class, identity and geographic position. For Laura Hoptman, curator of MoMA’s “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” contemporary painting has come to exist in a morally neutral miasma of styles and conceptual possibilities: “Time based terms like progressive – and its opposite, reactionary... Are of little use to describe contemporary works of art.” She continues: “In this new economy of surplus historical references, the makers take what they wish to make their point or their painting without guilt, and equally important, without an agenda based on a received meaning of style.”  Here Hoptman describes how the privileged bourgeois, situated in the center of global cities, experiences culture as tourists in space and time.
The Gothic-Futurist Working-Class
The majority of the human race, however, interacts with space and time in a far more constrained manner. The working-class subject experiences a gothic-futurist temporal displacement. They are buffeted by a history of autonomies gained and lost, a future that alternates between threats and promises, and the ever-precarious present.  The simultaneously gothic and futurist nature of culture under capitalism, at present, is due to the now universal character of uneven and combined development (UCD). UCD was famously adapted by Leon Trotsky to explain how late Tsarist Russia combined both the most archaic social and economic forms as well as the most advanced at one and the same time. As Vladimir Lenin wrote of this “classical” UCD, “The uneven and spasmodic development of individual enterprises, individual branches of industry and individual countries is inevitable under the capitalist system.”  During the period leading into World War I UCD was primarily seen as phenomenon on the edges of capitalist development (in the colonies, etc.). In the neoliberal era, as industry has become regionalized and globalized, UCD feeds back into the global “center”; as deindustrialization and globalized labor markets appear to “roll back time” in various rust-belts. In truth, UCD has always been central to capitalist development. As I have written elsewhere:
The initial impetus for the Gothic in art and literature stemmed from the marginalization of medieval forms by bourgeois relations and industrialization. The Gothic castle and the abbey stood in ruins, projecting both a nostalgia and fear of the past – things that were lost but also alien and threatening to modern life. The dynamics of capital continually recreate this process in contemporary culture, on various scales and in various geographies. This dynamic is the cultural echo of combined and uneven development. The hard fought autonomy of the small businessman is destroyed as capital is consolidated in larger units. “Self-made men” are proletarianized – as (far fewer) proletarians become “self-made men.” In the process thousands of little gothic worlds are created. The reign of the painter is supplanted by the photograph and film, which in turn are supplanted by the digital image. The American industrial worker is expelled from the liberal-consumerist “Eden” of post-WW2 capitalism; and in the neoliberal wilderness becomes of aware of his or her nakedness. As for the class struggle proper, while partial victories are possible (however few and far between at a particular moment), as long as capital reigns the history of bourgeois society is one of emancipatory dead-ends and cul-du-sacs. It will be a history of post-Marxisms and post-feminisms. More Gothic worlds are born – in the shells of factories, in the empty union halls, in the empty mansions of declassed small capitalists, in the photographs of failed revolutions and in the broadsheets of all but forgotten sects. 
Strong-Weak Images vs. Weak Images
This is why Groys is wrong about the messianic and transcendent image. It is not the weak image that heralds the apocalyptic erasure of time. The weak image avoids the apocalypse unfolding around it. It is not the weak image that becomes, at the end of history, transcendent. It is the strong image worn by grit that transcends time (for example, from the walls of Chauvet Cave). The transcendent image, therefore, is the image that alternates between weak and strong, like the breathing of a lung. The future does not belong to poor imitators of Malevich but to men who fly into space from their apartments and women who crawl out of the sea.  It belongs to the hands throwing the tear gas canisters back at the police. The image that is both weak and strong connects human aspirations to the reality of a weak human position. The image of the popular avant-garde, therefore, is a column pointing to heaven with its pedestal covered in shit and cum.
Addendum: Weak Political Art (or Situationism without Soviets)
The weakness of contemporary art, however, is also to be found in some of its avowedly politically art – situationism without soviets, the hermeneutical circle of institutional critiques and the patronizing philanthropy of (certain strands of) social practice art. In 1992 Sadie Plant argued for the defanging of situationism in the following manner:
The line of imaginative dissent to which Dada, surrealism, the situationists, and the activists of 1968 belong continually reappears in the poststructuralist and desiring philosophies of the 1970s, and the post-modern world view to which they have led is itself faced with the remnants of that tradition..
A cursory reading of poststructuralist thought leaves revolutionary theory without a leg to stand on.
....although poststructuralism is in some senses a radical break with the situationist project, a host of continuities makes it impossible to oppose the two world views completely. The interests, vocabulary and style of the situationists reappear in Lyotard’s railings against theory and Foucault’s maverick intellectualism... 
“Like the situationists,” Plant argues, the poststructuralists “observe that the world now seems to be a decentered and aimless collection of images and appearances… and declare the apparent impossibility of a future progress and historical foundation.”  Of course Plant is wrong about the situationists – they did hold out for progress and historical foundation. But Plant does describe a number of situationist inspired currents in contemporary art, focused on playing with the signs of exploitation and oppression without any hope of an emancipatory endgame.
Social practice art appears to offer an alternative, but as Claire Bishop points out, one of the main problems with social practice is its rejection of authorship. This apparently radical gesture is in actuality highly conservative. Rejecting the author in practice means ratifying the ruling ideas of society (which tend to reject the idea of actual social struggle). “[C]ompassionate identification with the other is typical of the discourse around participatory art,” Bishop argues, “in which an ethics of interpersonal interaction comes to prevail over a politics of social justice.” 
In insisting on consensual dialogue, sensitivity to difference risks becoming a new kind of repressive norm – one in which artistic strategies of disruption, intervention or over-identification are immediately ruled out as ‘unethical’ because all forms of authorship are equated with authority and indicted as totalizing. 
The weak images of (much) social practice art beg Bishop’s question. “[T]he aesthetic doesn’t need to be sacrificed at the alter of social change,” she writes summarizing Jacques Ranciere, “because it always already contains that ameliorative promise.”
- Arthur Danto, Unnatural Wonders, (New York: Colombia University Press, 2007), 10-13
- Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” e-flux journal 15, April 2010: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism/
- Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter (London: Pluto, 2011), 1
- see Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013)
- Tom Ladendorf, “The Group of Artists That’s Winning Fair Pay by Targeting Nonprofits,” In These Times, January 26, 2016: http://inthesetimes.com/article/18764/wages-for-arts-sake
- Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 21-22
- Editorial (Adam Turl and Alex Billet), “Art in (Corporate) America,” Red Wedge, June 1, 2014)
- Danica Radoschevich, “Zombie Gallery? The German Ideology and the White Cube,” Red Wedge, Ferbruary 8, 2015: http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/commentary/the-white-cube-and-the-german-ideology-gallery-space-as-bourgeois-farce?rq=zombie%20gallery
- Ben Davis, “The Age of Semi-Post-Post-Modernism,” Artnet: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/semi-post-postmodernism5-15-10.asp
- Laura Hoptman, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (New York: MoMA, 2015), 15
- Adam Turl “A Thousand Lost Worlds: Notes on Gothic Marxism,” Red Wedge: http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/evicted-art-blog/a-thousand-lost-worlds-notes-on-gothic-marxism?rq=gothic%20marxism
- Cited in Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, eds., 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects (London: Pluto Press), 2006, 9
- Adam Turl, “A Thousand Lost Worlds: Notes on Gothic Marxism,” Red Wedge: http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/evicted-art-blog/a-thousand-lost-worlds-notes-on-gothic-marxism?rq=gothic%20marxism
- This is a reference to Ilya Kabakov and Maya Deren
- Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Post-Modern Age (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 111-112
- Plant, 112
- Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 25
- Claire Bishop, 29
Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" and is also a member of the November Network of Anti-Capitalist Studio and Visual Artists.